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Please note "BBC Breakfast with Frost" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used

Now it may seem strange the woman who's said virtually nothing in public for more than 70 years is widely hailed as the nation's grandmother. There are dissenters - The Observer, today, as I pointed out earlier, calls for the abolition of the monarchy - but all the indications are that that's a minority view. In a moment I'll be talking to three eminent guests who know more than most about the workings of the monarchy, and what really makes the Queen Mother tick. But for the populist view we turn first to The Sun's royal photographer, Arthur Edwards. He's taken more snaps of more royals than most people have had hot breakfasts, and he's just written a book about the Queen Mum and her following. So what's it all about Arthur.


Arthur Edwards. And thank you to him. But with us this morning we have Sir Edward Ford, who was private secretary to King George VI up to the time of the king's death in 1952, plus Graham Turner, who's written extensively about the Queen Mother, worked on the recent Channel 4 series and in his research has spoken to many of the Queen Mother's closest associates. And Ben Pimlott, the historian whose biography of the Queen is, some say, the definitive tract on the royal family. Good morning to you all. Sir Edward first, in a recent Channel 4 - in that recent Channel 4 documentary, which you took part in - the historian Andrew Roberts observed that she herself says she's not half as nice as people make out, and he quotes one of George VI's biographers as saying - in private - "There's a touch of arsenic in the marshmallow." What sort of woman is she?

I think that's rather unfair. She has, of course, very definite opinions which she expresses in private, but not in public, she never makes a public confession of what her feelings are. But, I mean she must have steel in her to have survived the two great crises in her life, first when she became queen consort, unexpectedly in 1936, and secondly, of course, when the king died in 1952. And she then had to make an entirely new life.

Graham Turner, does that type of portrait, which is all too familiar to us, of the Queen Mother, bear any relationship, in your view, to the private reality?

GRAHAM TURNER I think she's a very tough lady. She can be really, and her friends would say this, she can be quite ruthless, when the issues are very strong. I mean the whole business of the future of the monarchy, her husband coming to a throne he didn't want, I think she had to be very, very tough in those days. So there is an enormous toughness there, there's no question about that. But in private the things that people say to you is that she is enormous fun. She just helps people enjoy themselves, and I think that's one of the things, in fact, that makes her not just the nation's granny, but the nation's favourite granny. Because not all the royals are fun - let's face it - but she is fun.

Ben, Sir Edward mentioned the abdication crisis, how formative was that for the Queen Mother?

BEN PIMLOTT Well, as Sir Edward says, massively. I mean it completely changed her life from being, not a private person, but one who was in the sort of second division of royal consorts, to being somebody who was absolutely centre stage. And of course within three years Britain was at war, and so the ruling, reigning royal couple had ah enormous importance, not just to Britain, but all over what was then the British Empire and British Commonwealth. So it completely transformed her life, it was not something that she could have expected or, or did expect.

Did she ever forgive -


- Wallis Simpson - did she ever forgive what happened, what was done to her?

BEN PIMLOTT I mean don't know, I mean who knows what goes on in people's hearts.


BEN PIMLOTT There's obviously been a load of television coverage about, you know, the feud and all that sort of stuff. I think there's relatively little evidence of that as a sort of dominating factor. I think that, that, the truth was that the Windsors were out of the picture, she was very much in the picture, and that was what the centre - I think there's a key point about her that should, should be remembered that although she's today seen as being the essence of royalty, of course she's not actually royal herself. She's an aristocrat, a Scottish aristocrat, and she came from outside, she married into the royal family - in the way that Princess Diana did, though from a rather different, perhaps rather a stronger .

But a lot of our big aristocratic families, on the quiet, think they're a lot grander than the Windsors, don't they?

GRAHAM TURNER Yes indeed they do.

BEN PIMLOTT Indeed, but I think - it was rather interesting, somebody once put to me that she came, the difference between her and Princess Diana is - or Diana Spencer - is that she came from a Tory family with traditions of loyalty to the monarchy, whereas Diana came from a Whig, Whig family, which was much more individualistic - as you say - rather looked down on the Hanoverians dynasty. I don't know if there's much in that but there's certainly, there's great devotion to royalty there, but devotion coming from an, an aristocratic origin more than a royal one.

Sir Edward - sorry Graham.

GRAHAM TURNER There's a, there's a real point about the Duchess of Windsor. I don't think there's any doubt that the Queen Mother wanted to see her off in a big way, but in the last five years of the Duchess of Windsor's life, when she was bedridden and heart complaints of all kinds, the Queen actually send the Dean of Windsor, Michael Mann, to Paris, every six months or so, just to make sure the old lady was being reasonably well looked after. Now that was the Queen's initiative, but it's quite interesting that the Queen Mother would have known about that initiative, and approved of it privately. So that in a sense whether she'd forgiven the Duchess of Windsor or not, at least there was some effort to be kind at the end.

Sir Edward, you are the only person here who sat in a room with the king and queen. Was she - as some historians insist, who didn't have that sort of access - the power behind the throne?

No I don't think that's the right description really. She saw her role as the - supporting the king, and the monarchy, as such. She didn't interefere, her influence is impalpable. It wasn't direct, I don't think. The king was, well at least when I went there which he'd been on the thonre for ten years, was his own man, making his own decisions on things perfectly without support, but of course she was a, she was a tremendous support to him.

Did he ever mention how much he owed to her? Did he ever speak that openly or frankly about how much he owed to his wife?

I don't, I don't remember specifically that. I mean I, I know he wouldn't have admitted it and indeed of course if it had been the other way round in 1952 I, I don't think that the king would have found it as easy to survive as in the end she did.

One of the other extraordinary claims in the Channel 4 documentary was that when she appeared on the balcony, the king and the queen appeared on the balcony with Neville Chamberlain when he came back from Munich, this was a deeply, a staggeringly unconstitutional act, where Andrew Roberts words. What um, do you share that view, that they, the king and the queen at that moment really overstepped the mark?

Well I think that's true, because the king and queen did it without ministerial advice because of course the, the sovereign is bound by ministerial advice so I, I don't know if the government was ever great friends with of course, Lord Halifax, who was the foreign secretary at the time. And I think that it's easier for historians now to, to attribute a great deal of political mistakes to that, but I was there at, at the time, as a young man, and it's impossible I think to exaggerate the sense of relief that Neville Chamberlain's return with the piece of paper, that eventually turns out to be worthless, but nevertheless had brought. It was like release from a death sentence. And there's no doubt they were expressing the feelings of the country at large.

And Ben, do you share that view?

BEN PIMLOTT Yes I do very much and I think I, I saw that programme and I thought that that was very much overstated. I think if you turn it round the other way and say it might be very unconstitutional if the king and queen had refused to come out on the balcony, with Neville Chamberlain. I think it's so anachronistic, I mean you say retrospectively there was an alternative point of view, but he was very much expressing the consensus - there was a kind of cross party relief, at that time. I mean it's fair, the king and queen, concern, there's an interesting contract between, I think in private they did express political views, but they were very, very careful about not expressing political views in public. And I don't think anyone's ever, certainly at the time, ever criticised them for taking any political position.

How much of a blow, Graham, was it when Queen Elizabeth became the Queen Mother? She was no longer queen.

GRAHAM TURNER Oh colossal. Absolutely colossal. I mean for, for quite a time she really thought she'd just leave public life altogether. She'd lost all her home, she'd lost her role in the national life, she'd really lost everything, as well as her husband - something she's never fully got over! And it's quite interesting when, when, when the Queen Mother drove up to Clarence House, while the present Queen was still living there, the present Queen said to one of her aides who was standing there
"Here comes the problem," because she knew how big a blow it had been to her mother. And I think it was probably fairly crucial that Winston Churchill more or less took the Queen Mother in hand, up at Balmoral, and, and said to her you really can't do a Queen Victoria, and suddenly slide away from national life - there is a role for you, your daughter needs you, come on. Do you know. And I think that was fairly decisive actually.

Sir Edward, do you think she was tempted to leave public life altogether at that stage?

SIR EDWARD FORD Well she, obviously she was absolutely desolated for a time. And it's always said that it was largely a, a book of, an anthology sent to her by Edith Sitwell that was, that prompted her to take up life again and have, have or her own role, And as you saw the other day at the pageant, she is connected or, with over 300 institutions, from the Sandringham Women's Institute to the Cinque Ports or London University, and she's made a great life of her own.

Let me put this to Ben because you mentioned, you drew a parallel with Diana. How far could we carry this, this parallel? They both instinctively seem to know - or Diana knew - where the cameras are. Photographers love her. She's always within four yards of the camera - so we're told - which is the ideal distance for to get a shot on the hoof. Tell us more about the relationship between the Queen Mother and Diana, did they actually have a sneaking admiration for each other?

BEN PIMLOTT Well there's the famous squidgy tape which has Diana saying something about the Queen Mother looking at her. I, I really don't know, I mean she was a very old - old lady - by that stage, and I don't they'd a great deal to do with each other. However I think there is a similarity, they were both daughters of earls, and in both cases in a sense marrying into the royal family was a career choice. I mean it was not just, you know, a love match. It was a decision to go into a very difference kind of life. And I think that they both - it's often said - they both had star quality. They both, as you say, knew where the cameras were and they, they enjoyed that. And although Princess, um, the Princess of Wales, obviously had great difficulties, great problems, there's no question but that she enjoyed being in the limelight, or anyway ambivalent about it but then it, there was a real enjoyment and the same was true of the Queen Mother, I mean all throughout her life, even before she became Queen, you can see in the, in the film footage, how much she enjoyed being centre of attention and how naturally she felt she, she was a film star.

Graham did - how did she react - do we know how she reacted to the infidelities of Charles and Diana?

GRAHAM TURNER Oh I think she always took Charles' side. I mean Charles doesn't easily talk to his own parents about these things, so it was on, on the Queen Mother's shoulder that he wept. And in her he confided. And I just - I think the Queen Mother was probably one of the early ones who had grave doubts about Diana, and, and certainly supported Charle, Charles, all the way - I mean what, what he felt, she felt. She was always wholly on his side. And I think the key difference between Diana and the Queen Mother is they came from very different homes. Diana came from a divided home, the Queen Mother came from an extremely solid home. And I think the, the difference showed itself in their lives, although some of their talents were quite similar.

I don't know how much of a straw in the wind this editorial in The Observer today is, they say we've got to get rid of the monarchy, their time has come, they're nice chaps and the Queen's okay but they've got to be swept away. How, Ben, how much has the Queen Mother had to do with preserving the monarchy in the 20th century?

BEN PIMLOTT Well I think critically she had a great deal to do with it after 1936 and I think a, a sort of great historic role, in a sense was that,. when this very, very diffident, very unsure, stammering, introverted monarch came to the throne in a, in a situation of constitutional crisis, and many people wondered whether he could carry on, whether indeed he'd even get through his coronation service, she was there in the background as a very strong, outgoing, publicly loved, very beautiful figure, you know, it comes through she carried him through. And I think that that, that that was critical. I think she's also been an enormous support to the Queen, and as a kind of figurehead beyond criticism, doing the very difficult times in the last ten or 15 years, I think she's extremely important. I think that, you know, the monarchy, as an institution, has a great deal to thank her for, and of course the nation.

Again, Sir Edward, you were there during those times when she was in her prime, although many would say she's probably still in her prime today, but do you, do you think her place in the history of the monarchy in the 20th century is as important as Ben Pimlott has just outlined?

Oh yes I think it is, you see I don't think that constitutionally, what one can say in a 100 years time, historians will look back and say she was a great influence. Her influence, as I say, was always impalpable, it was a supporting influence to her husband and it's been a sort of additional bonus to her daughter, the Queen, I think, whom she's left entirely to do her own thing, during her reign.

And Graham, just before we round up, just give us a little thumbnail sketch of what sort of lifestyle the Queen Mother has now. I mean its said that she's a living testament to the restorative powers of gin but is that - is that a fiction?

GRAHAM TURNER Not at all, no, no, she can take quite a lot. But I mean she, she's been known to have three triple gins and dubonnets before lunch, wine during lunch, and still walk absolutely straight after lunch. So there certainly is that side to her, and she's an amazing person for parties, for weekend parties, all through the autumn at, at Balmoral, the Castle of , the summer, the racing parties and so on. I mean, and she is, there's no doubt about it, whatever negative things one might say, she's certainly a tremendous hostess - there's no question about that.

Well let's hope she has many more parties. Thank you all very much, Sir Edward Ford, Graham Turner, Ben Pimlott.

In a moment I'll be talking to the Culture Secretary, Chris Smith, and there's much to get through with him as well - the government finally off loads the dome, the ITV companies move into a new era and the Press Complaints Commission gets called into action again this weekend by the Prime Minister. Before that, however, a reminder of the Breakfast with Frost website where you can check details of this programme and precisely what our guests have been saying anytime. [FILM CLIPS] ENDS

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